Oh what a difference a decade makes … (in politics). “No Gays Allowed” – Religious Freedom legislation dies in the state House and Senate

By Gary S. Cox

Governor Roy Barnes once told a small group of political confidants that the hardest part of being Governor of Georgia was “. . . trying to keep GACareGeorgia (and the Georgia General Assembly) off the front pages of the New York Times in a bad light …” Well, it seems the Georgia General Assembly is failing miserably at, on first blush, what should be a simple task. House Bill 1023 and Senate Bill 377 both put Georgia squarely in the national limelight (along with Arizona, Kansas, Mississippi, and Oklahoma and Tennessee) in a very negative way.  The introduction of the House and Senate companion bills (The Preservation of Religious Freedom Act) would have exempted people, government employees and businesses from any legal proceeding if they invoke personal religious beliefs to break laws that serve the “common good.” This expansion of religious freedom was simply not needed, was unwarranted and was unprecedented in its depth and scope – it would have created a potential hodgepodge of unintended consequences – it is simply mind boggling.

The laws, if it had been enacted and signed by Governor Deal, could potentially nullify laws intended to protect individuals from discrimination and violate both public safety and state health laws. Passage of the legislation would adopt a new defense of “religious belief” into civil and criminal cases. For example, the law could protect a nurse who refused to administer a doctor ordered blood transfusion if giving the blood transfusion were against her religious convictions – the state Nursing Board would be powerless to sanction the nurse. Business owners would have been able to legally post a sign “No Gays Allowed” in their restaurant or business – as long as they claimed that serving the LBGTQ community violated their religious beliefs. This example is the real crux of the legislation – the bill was designed by the conservative religious right as a method for religious conservatives to thumb their nose at society in our growing acceptance and public demand for equality for our LBGTQ citizens. Does this scenario sound familiar? It should – this is the same attitude found under the Gold Dome in 1956 that gave us the Confederate Battle flag on the state flag in the wake of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

In moving forward as a society, we now have elected officials State Representatives Simone Bell and Karla Drenner who spoke forcefully and vocally against the House and Senate bills. Georgia Equality, with Jeff Graham at the helm, and former Council President Cathy Woolard leading the charge to get vocal opponents “en mass” at the state capital to defeat this legislation.
Further, the religious right didn’t count on hometown Fortune 500 companies like Delta Airlines and Home Depot state the legislation violated their “core values” as employers. Nationally, American Airlines, the NFL and Star Bucks weighed in on similar legislation in Arizona – and their collective voices were heard. The pressure from the business community was so great that this legislation has died for this session.

Suffice it to say it was collective effort spear-headed by a newly invigorated gay community winning court battle after court battle on the marriage issue that defeated this legislation … and just 10 years ago, the same Republican controlled legislature was successful in getting a constitutional amendment on the ballot and passed banning same-sex marriage in Georgia. Shades of purple and turning blue may be in Georgia’s future after all.